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I had the opportunity to speak with Edo Choi about the current state of Asian cinema, and it seems that this year has been particularly successful.
I had the opportunity to speak with Edo Choi about the current state of Asian cinema, and it seems that this year has been particularly successful.

I had the opportunity to speak with Edo Choi about the current state of Asian cinema, and it seems that this year has been particularly successful.

During our Zoom meeting, we discussed the requirements for being included in the First Look slate and also shared some of our favorite moments from the program.

“First Look,” the annual film festival hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image, is back for its 13th edition. The five-day event will showcase 20 cutting-edge films from 21 different countries, with a focus on Asian cinema. This year’s lineup includes “Achilles” (directed by Farhad Delaram from Iran), “Self-Portrait: 47 KM 2020” (directed by Zhang Mengqi from China), and “Mimang” (directed by Kim Taeyang from South Korea), among others. In addition to traditional films, the Amphitheater Gallery will also feature a video installation by Asian diaspora artist Fiona Tan called “Footsteps,” which is 97 minutes long.

Looking back at this year’s chosen films, we had the chance to chat with Edo Choi, who serves as both Associate Curator of Film and Senior Programmer for First Look at MoMI. In addition to his roles at the museum, Choi also writes and operates projectors as a freelancer, and his works have been featured in publications such as Reverse Shot and Film Comment. We spoke over Zoom about the selection process for First Look and some standout pieces from the program.

This interview has been modified and edited to improve clarity.

This is the 13th version of “First Look” being presented this year. What are the similarities and differences between this edition and previous ones?

Edo Choi: Our aim is to encompass a diverse range of films showcased at festivals throughout the year. I was especially struck by the outstanding Asian films this year. While we strive to give proper recognition to all regions and types of films, such as documentaries, fiction, and those that are more experimental or traditional, I couldn’t help but notice the strong presence of East Asian films. Overall, I was impressed by the high caliber of films we had to choose from.

I am highly anticipating the two East Asian films that we will be showcasing. One is a debut fiction film by Kim Taeyang called “Mimang” and the other is a documentary film by established filmmaker Zhang Mengqi titled “Self-portrait: 47KM 2020”. These films highlight the diverse range of works that we strive to feature, from up-and-coming artists to experienced veterans, and covering both the genres of documentary and fiction.

A significant portion of the program highlights “Asian” perspectives, but also explores the concept of being “transnational.” This can be seen in the works of Simon Liu (“Single File”), Faraz Fesharaki (“What are you dreaming of, Parajanov?”), and the exhibit featuring Fiona Tan.

The goal is to be an inclusive festival that breaks traditional boundaries, both in terms of physical and creative limitations. We hope to present unique and innovative concepts surrounding the world of film.

Did you advocate for a specific movie to be included in the program?

Our team is made up of only three individuals: Eric Hynes, MoMI Curator of Film and First Look Artistic Director, Sonia Epstein, Curator of Science and Technology and First Look Film and Exhibitions Programmer, and myself. We prioritize films that we are truly passionate about, rather than following a specific formula or meeting a quota. We believe in representing a wide range of perspectives without forcing an agenda.

Mimang First Look

Did the strikes that occurred in Hollywood last year impact the programming in any way?

I have a different opinion. Many of these movies are not produced by unions due to their limited budget or being created outside of the traditional system. They truly embody the essence of independent cinema. Overall, I believe this year has been exceptional for Asian movies and the festival reflects that. Despite this, there were several East Asian films that I adored but unfortunately were not included in the lineup. This just highlights the abundance of talent present in the industry this year.

I have observed that part of your choices were featured in recent festivals such as Berlinale 2024, which occurred a few weeks ago.

This is our situation. We are a collection of festivals. Our resources and structure are not sufficient to handle and evaluate all submissions, which would be too much considering we are constantly programming throughout the year. We examine the selections of festivals we admire, taking note of films that are praised by our fellow programmers and critics who are actively involved. We also watch many of the films ourselves. This is our process.

The event “First Look” also showcases international films in New York, providing a unique viewing experience for local audiences.

All festivities are specific to a certain area. Our celebration is created for movie enthusiasts located in New York who are knowledgeable, inquisitive, and daring, and who will value the element of surprise. When we’re putting together the lineup, it must evoke a sense of discovery.

The theme of “discovery” and “rediscovery” is evident in the Asian selection. For instance, the film “Mimang” reflects on the changing landscape of Seoul and its inhabitants over time. Similarly, “Footsteps” explores filmmaker Tan’s revisiting of both her personal and national film archives.

Indeed, “Mimang” focuses on discovering a sense of belonging and reconnecting with one’s identity. We are pleased to have that director among us.

Who else will be joining us?

Most of the directors will be present at the festival in the upcoming year. Along with showcasing originality and advancement, another significant aspect is promoting a feeling of camaraderie at First Look. It is extremely crucial for us to have filmmakers participate in the festival. Our goal is to curate a diverse range of films that will allow for maximum engagement. This year, we could potentially break the record for the highest number of in-person attendees.

The term “innovation” you mentioned is particularly intriguing given the current landscape of AI and film. A large portion of this year’s Sundance lineup focused on pioneering methods for approaching digital filmmaking, yet First Look appears to take a different approach.

We are not primarily interested in the introduction of new technologies for their own sake. Rather, we are drawn to how filmmakers use these advancements. We are intrigued by the underlying artistic innovation of the filmmaker, which may draw from technology but is not solely dependent on it. One notable example is Michaël Andrianaly, a Malagasy filmmaker who will be honored with the True Vision Award at this year’s True/False Film Festival in recognition of his mid-career contributions. Michaël’s work showcases a remarkable level of accomplishment. His latest film, “Gwetto,” follows a group of young migrant workers at a car wash in a bustling city in Madagascar. While it adheres to traditional cinéma vérité techniques, the film is exceptionally well-crafted. In just 50 minutes, Michaël effectively captures the daily lives of these men.

It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but about honing and refining that form. We don’t get seduced by something that is fashionable or feels superficially new. To me, innovation is not just on the surface-level, but on the detail and nuances of expression that a filmmaker brings to their work. Subtle things, like camera position, sense of rhythm, composition – these are the mark of a good artist. 

Lastly, is there a movie that you are most excited about seeing?

I am unable to express it. (laughs)

I am extremely thrilled to have Zheng Mengqi’s “Self-portrait: 47KM 2020” as I greatly admire her work. This film marks the culmination of her long-term project on her ancestral village, spanning over a decade. It is the most ambitious installment yet, lasting over 3 hours and documenting the impact of COVID on the village from January 2020 to January 2021. The film is reminiscent of Renaissance landscape paintings such as [Pieter] Bruegel’s and traditional Chinese handscroll paintings, combining a pastoral and pictorial approach with a grounded perspective. It is also highly specific, offering viewers the opportunity to learn about rice farming while watching. This is the type of film that First Look appreciates, as it showcases an impressive attention to detail.

The Museum of the Moving Image in New York, NY will be hosting First Look, a five-day event, from March 13-17, 2024. To view the complete schedule and purchase tickets, visit https://movingimage.org/series/firstlook2024/.